Orioles' Benitez getting attention for Dominicans

BRINGING IT, IN A HURRY

August 10, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees clocked Armando Benitez at 97 mph on their radar gun Monday night.

"He's going to be around awhile," Yankees manager Buck Showalter said. "He's got a pretty good-looking arm, doesn't he?"

Paul O'Neill didn't argue.

"He blew me away," the American League's leading hitter said.

Two weeks ago, Benitez was in Double-A. Two nights ago, he struck out O'Neill in front of 34,045 at Yankee Stadium, with two on and two out and the score tied in the eighth inning.

The scout who signed him, Carlos Bernhardt, was watching on cable television in the Dominican Republic. He called Benitez's mother, Constanza, but she was already occupied.

"His mother is very, very religious," Bernhardt said. "I tried to get her to watch the game, but she was lying on the floor, praying to God to help her son, help her son."

Help?

"You don't need no help when you're throwing 96," Lee Smith said, laughing.

Benitez can't be this good, not at 21, not without pitching at Triple-A. But he could become the first Dominican to succeed with the Orioles -- a major accomplishment in itself.

For nearly 10 years, Bernhardt has been signing Dominican prospects, but for a variety of reasons, the Orioles have yet to reap the benefits of his labor.

Where are the Dominicans?

Jose Bautista is with the Chicago Cubs. Jose Mesa in Cleveland. Jose Mercedes is with Milwaukee.

The return on those three pitchers was an outfielder who is out of baseball (Kyle Washington) and $50,000 from the Rule V draft.

Meanwhile, Juan Bell is with his sixth organization in Montreal. Luis Mercedes is out of the game. And Manny Alexander is still waiting for his chance at Triple-A.

Most of those players deserved their fates. But then again, neither the front office nor the major-league staff showed them much patience.

Take Jose Mercedes. The Orioles lost him in the Rule V draft, lost him because they inexplicably protected Mike Cook, a journeyman pitcher they later traded to the New York Mets.

Mercedes, 23, is now 2-0 with a 2.40 ERA in 18 relief appearances for the Brewers after pitching at Double-A Bowie last season.

Think the Orioles would like him back?

Imagine Bernhardt's frustration when his players keep winding up with other teams. And imagine his excitement now that Benitez is making all of his efforts seem worthwhile.

Better yet, imagine Constanza's excitement, if that's possible.

When Benitez made his major-league debut, Bernhardt said Constanza ran back and forth in her home in San Pedro de Macoris, jumping up and down and shouting.

"I wish you had a camera to show the people how happy the Dominican people get when they see their kids get to the major leagues," Bernhardt said.

Constanza Benitez, 55, must have been quite a sight. She is a single parent. She does not work. Like many Dominican players, Armando supports the family, sending most of his paycheck home.

He is the third of four children, with an older sister and younger brother still in the Dominican, and an older brother living in Brooklyn. Francisco Benitez, 27, attended Monday night's game.

Armando almost certainly will return to the minors before Friday's strike date, but the money he's earning from this brief major-league stint will help him complete an addition to his mother's home.

"I feel very, very happy," Constanza said yesterday from San Pedro. "Armando, this was his desire. He said he would like to go to the big leagues. He wants to finish my house and make me happy."

The original house is tiny, one room divided by curtains, with no glass in the windows. "If it's 15 by 15," said Benitez's agent, Mike Powers, "I'd be shocked."

But Benitez is devoted to his mother. Powers frequently reminds him, "you can't give her everything." As he put it, "he will give her the shirt off his back, and more."

Bernhardt said Benitez sent $700 home at one point last season -- an exorbitant sum for a Single-A player. "He was only playing at Frederick," Bernhardt said. "I said, 'Take it easy.' "

Benitez thought nothing of it.

"You've got to understand about Latins," said Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles' Cuban-born first baseman, "Their mother is like the ultimate woman."

Powers says Constanza is more than that.

He calls her "an angel."

Armando had a terrible temper in his younger days and still can be rather emotional. Three years ago, Powers agreed to become his agent, but only if he calmed down.

Powers recalled that first conversation yesterday, how Manny Alexander served as an intermediary, and how stunned he was to hear Constanza interrupt.

"I heard from the back of the room his mother saying, in perfect English, 'That's right, Armando, you should listen to him,' " Powers said. "She had never even told me she spoke English."

Later that night, Constanza again confronted Armando. According to Powers, she said, "If you don't straighten yourself out, I will break your arm, and you will never pitch again."

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